Archive for September, 2023

What will a Republican government shutdown do to our men and women in uniform?

Friday, September 29th, 2023

The military ranks of E-4, E-5, and E-6, (Specialist [or Corporal], Sergeant, and Staff Sergeant, respectively), make up the backbone of the U.S. armed forces. The men and women of these three ranks, after accumulating four years experience, earn annual gross income ranging from $34,978 (E-4) to $42,786 (E-6).

If that E-4 is part of a family of four, he or she can earn all the way up to $42,018 after four years service, because of housing and subsistence allowances, which are determined by the cost of living in the area of assignment.  The higher ranked E-6 can increase annual pay to about $53,000 in a high cost area.

In the ten years, from January, 2013, through January, 2023, pay for these ranks has increased a meager 7.9%.

In 2019, in its National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020, Congress directed the Secretary of Defense to report on food insecurity among members of the armed forces and their dependents. The Department of Defense (DOD) contracted with the Rand Corporation to conduct a study to fulfill Congress’s directive. After an exhaustive analysis, Rand concluded the level of food insecurity was 25.8% in the armed forces, which is nearly double the level in the civilian population. The DOD then published a report citing Rand’s work and outlining steps it would begin taking to address such a high level of need.

Without Congress approving more money for pay, DOD is forced to limit its initiative to mostly education, and that is what its report focused on.

The  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, (WIC) are both available to members of the armed forces who qualify for them, but takeup of these programs is tiny (6%), compared to the civilian population, as the Rand study pointed out. No study has yet been done to learn why this is so, but Rand theorized the culture of the military with its “Can do” attitudes, as well as feared stigma—both social and career— attached to asking for aid have a lot to do with it. That’s probably true.

The Rand report segregated food insecurity in the armed forces into three areas: sometimes, often, and very often. It found that 11.4% fell into the “very often” category.

Why am I going on about this? Simple answer. Because in the middle of tomorrow night, at 12:01 AM to be precise, pay will stop for the armed forces if Republicans force a government shutdown, and lower and middle rank soldiers, who don’t have much money to begin with, which is shameful, will have none.¹ Of course, they’ll all still be on the job of defending America.

Most media is reporting that federal workers, whose pay is stopped, would receive retractive back pay following the shutdown, but this is not entirely correct for the armed forces. Under current law, only those deemed “essential” would receive backpay once a shutdown ends and new federal funding is approved.

In 2018, at the last possible minute, Congress approved legislation allowing DOD service members to be paid for the duration of what was to become a 35-day shutdown. The legislation excluded the Coast Guard, because it comes under the Department of Homeland Security, not the DOD.

Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., a former Navy helicopter pilot, introduced legislation in the House last week to pay military members if the nearly guaranteed shutdown happens. And more than a dozen Republican senators introduced a similar bill on Tuesday. But both bills are currently languishing in Political Limbo while all the self-serving theatrics go on.

I’m guessing (but I wouldn’t bet on it) that tomorrow night at about 11:59 PM Congress will do something to ensure our men and women in uniform, all of whom have volunteered to defend the country—and to die if necessary—continue to receive their paychecks. Failure to do so will bring even more ignominy on the fools driving the clown car over the cliff.

Maybe this time they’d include the 57,000 members of the U.S. Coast Guard.


¹ The Rand study found that middle and lower ranks had average savings of less than $3,000.

Thoughts about this crazy week in Washington DC

Wednesday, September 27th, 2023

Who gets hurt in the looming government shutdown?

In December of 2018, President Trump and Democrats in Congress were at an impasse. Trump wanted $5.4 billion to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico; the Democrats didn’t.

Despite controlling both the House and the Senate, Trump and his Republican allies could not find enough votes to get his $5.4 billion. Consequently, Congress could not pass an Appropriations Bill to fund the operations of the federal government for the 2019 fiscal year, or a temporary continuing resolution that would extend the deadline for passing a bill. And so, on 22 December commenced the longest government shutdown in history—35 days. Nine federal Departments and three independent agencies, the EPA, NASA, and the Small Business Administration, were affected. The shutdown ended when Trump conceded and the 2019 Appropriations Bill was passed without any border wall.

This week in Washington, DC, we’re at it again. Only this time it’s worse. Far right factions of the Republican Party are carrying on a knock down, drag out catfight over federal funding. Congress has until Saturday night to pass a dozen appropriations bills funding the federal government for another year—or a short-term deal to extend funding while negotiations continue. It’s becoming more and more doubtful that either will happen. If a shutdown occurs it will affect all 15 federal departments, not just the nine of 2018. They will have no money to provide services, and most of the federal workforce, including the Armed Forces, will be furloughed, although essential workers will still report to work, but in an unpaid capacity. When the shutdown ends, the workers would receive retroactive back pay, but that doesn’t help those living paycheck to paycheck who need to pay rent and other monthly bills.

So, who will get hurt the most by this?

If you’re well off, it won’t be you.

The 2018 shutdown cost the nation’s economy an estimated $11 billion.  If a shutdown occurs now and  lasts a month, some estimates show fourth quarter annualized GDP growth decreasing by 1.5-2 percentage points, which would be particularly damaging considering the economy is only projected to grow at between 2.3 and 2.5 percentage points.

But I asked “who” will get hurt, and that would be people who can least afford it—primarily the poor.

The White House on Monday highlighted the risks to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, which is administered by the Department of Agriculture. Though there are contingency funds, those could be spent in a matter of days, jeopardizing the program that helps support the nutrition and food needs of low-income pregnant or breastfeeding women and infants and children up to 5 years old. Various states may have small contingency funds, but those would dry up after a day or two more.

In fiscal year 2022, WIC served about 6.3 million people each month, including about 39% of all infants in the United States. WIC provides nutritious foods, counseling on healthy eating, breastfeeding support, and health care referrals to low-income pregnant, , and breastfeeding individuals, infants, and children. 

The White House released a breakdown of the number of WIC recipients at risk of losing assistance in each state, with California (972,418), Texas (786,686) and Florida (421,294) topping the list.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told NPR’s Morning Edition that the “vast majority of beneficiaries will see an immediate cutoff” of WIC access, for most “within a matter of days.”

Depending on how long a potential shutdown lasts, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could be impacted too, Vilsack added. It would continue as normal only through October, according to the USDA.

The Senate is doing its best to avert the shutdown. Yesterday, it voted 77 to 19 to consider a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government open through Nov. 17.  The bill would prevent a shutdown and provide $6 billion in aid to Ukraine and $6 billion in disaster relief funds. But the process to pass the measure could take days, with no guarantee the House will schedule a vote on it. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is planning to take up a House continuing resolution (CR) that pairs funding the government with some spending cuts and border security measures. The House’s CR has no chance of being approved in the Senate.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy seems a puppet on a string and is being made to dance by a really far right minority of the far right Freedom Caucus. McCarthy sold his soul to these folks back in January when he gave away the family jewels, and anything else demanded of him, to achieve his life-long goal of the Speakership. He’s got it now, but for how long is anyone’s guess, given that it will only take one Member advancing a motion to “vacate the Chair” for him to more than likely lose the gavel. The Speaker, like so many hungry-for-power folks before him, has once again proven The Peter Principle¹ to be still sound, 54 years on. Kevin McCarthy has “risen to his level of incompetence” (although he may have done that a long time ago, but for now, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt).

It’s conceivable, but barely, that House Members in revolt could come to their senses before Saturday night, pass spending bills the Senate could agree with, and leave the floor with their heads held high. But that does not seem to be in their DNA. Their leaders crave attention, and they’re getting plenty of it. They all live in water-tight, compartmented steel boxes, their beliefs, opinions, and unbridled ambition cemented to the floor, never to be moved.


¹ Peter, Laurence J., and Raymond Hull. [1969] 1970. The Peter Principle. Pan Books.

But wait. There’s more!

Tonight, in California, at 9:00 pm EST, seven Republican candidates for President will take the stage  for their second primary debate—but Donald Trump won’t be one of them. He’s skipping the event to hold a rally in Detroit an hour earlier, at 8:00 pm EST, addressing a few hundred striking auto workers. The candidate debate will air live on Fox Business and Univision. Fox Nation will live stream Trump’s rally.

My guess is that former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley will emerge from tonight’s debate with wind at her back. Her pragmatic approach to the economy and focus on things that can actually happen will appeal to the middle-of-the-bell curve Republican voters. Other than that, she and the other six will throw out a bucketful of platitudes like red meat to the base “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

At his complaint-filled and platitudinous rally, Donald Trump is sure to mention four things:

  1. He will excoriate New York Justice Arthur F. Engoron who ruled yesterday that the former President committed fraud by inflating the value of his assets, and stripped him of control over some of his signature New York properties. The decision is a major victory for New York Attorney General Letitia James in her lawsuit against Mr. Trump, effectively deciding that no trial was needed to determine that he had fraudulently secured favorable terms on loans and insurance deals.
  2. He will spend a good deal of time griping that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from him.
  3. He will whine about the rest of his legal troubles. You know, those four criminal indictments.
  4. He will dismiss the seven candidates about to chirp away in California.

His MAGA cult followers will eat it up.

And tomorrow, it’s on to impeaching Joe Biden

Instead of figuring out how to keep the federal government running for another year, tomorrow the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability will conduct a hearing titled, “The Basis for an Impeachment Inquiry of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.” Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) said the hearing will “examine the value of an impeachment inquiry and present evidence House Republicans have uncovered to date regarding President Joe Biden’s knowledge of and role in his family’s domestic and international business practices.”

There are 25 Republicans on this Committee. It’s a who’s who of the rabble rousing element, featuring Jim Jordan, Nancy Mace, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, et al. The “Inquiry” will give these bomb-throwers the opportunity to do what they like doing best: lambast Joe Biden.

For the record, none of these patriots have criticized Donald Trump at any time throughout his criminal indictment-filled journey.



New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez is indicted (again!) for bribery and corruption

Monday, September 25th, 2023

Last Friday, the United States District Court of Southern New York indicted Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), his wife, Nadine Menendez, and three New Jersey businessmen on bribery and corruption charges. The bribes the Senator is accused of taking include a $60,000 Mercedes car for his wife, mortgage payments, $100,000 in gold bars, and about half a million dollars in cash, all in exchange for using his office and chairmanship on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to increase U.S. aid to Egypt and provide favors to the three businessmen in his state who were also indicted. The 39-page indictment is granular in its damnation.

Basically, the indictment tells the story of how, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (he stepped down Friday following the release of the indictment), Menendez had the power to approve or place holds on “foreign military financing and sales of military equipment to Egypt.” The indictment charges that, in exchange for Menendez approving the sale of military equipment to Egypt, Wael Hana, a New Jersey businessman with close ties to Egyptian officials, would pay bribe money to Nadine Menendez whom Hana had hired for what was, essentially, a no-show job.

According to the indictment, Bob Menendez would text Nadine advanced details of official actions approving arms sales. Nadine would then forward these messages to Hana, who would pass the information to the Egyptian government.

Menendez was also indicted and tried for bribery in 2015, but that trial ended in a hung jury, and the government chose not to retry the Senator. You’d think he would have learned. That first trial ended in 2018, and Friday’s indictment makes clear that by that time the Senator was already into this current bribery scheme.

When the FBI searched the Menendez home, investigators found more than $500,000 in cash, much of it hidden in closets and clothing, including a jacket with Senator Menendez’s name and the U.S. Senate seal.

Menendez, who is up for re-election next year, was defiant in a statement he released this morning, saying he would be exonerated, he would not resign, and, yes, he will stay in next year’s race and expects to win. New Jersey Democratic politicians, from the Governor on down, and including the state’s Junior Senator John Fetterman, have called on Menendez to resign. But they are pretty much the only Democrats doing that. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other party leaders are urging caution, with Schumer saying, “Bob Menendez has been a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey. He has a right to due process and a fair trial.” This is true, but still…

Judd Legum, writing in Popular Information this morning, points out that Senator Menendez does have a constitutional right to be presumed innocent and to have a fair trial, but does not have a constitutional right to be a U.S. Senator. Legum goes on to contrast the way Democratic leaders are treating this new and latest Menendez indictment with the way they handled accusations against former Senator Al Franken in 2017. Legum writes:

In 2017, Leeann Tweeden, a conservative radio talk show host, accused then-Senator Al Franken (D-MN) of “having forced an unwanted kiss on her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour.” Over the next couple of weeks, seven other women accused Franken of inappropriate touching or kissing. About half of Franken’s accusers remain anonymous. There were no criminal charges or any investigation of Franken’s alleged conduct.

Nevertheless, Schumer called on Franken to resign immediately, urging him not to wait for the “due process” of an Ethics Committee investigation:

“Senator Franken should resign. I consider Senator Franken a dear friend and greatly respect his accomplishments, but he has a higher obligation to his constituents and the Senate, and he should step down immediately.”

More than 30 Democratic Senators called for Franken’s immediate resignation. And, despite not being charged of any crime, the Senator from Minnesota’s fall was stunningly swift. He resigned less than three weeks after the first accusation.

So why did Schumer, et al, want Franken, with no indictment, out lickety-split, and Menendez, now with two of them, to hang around and wait for a “fair trial?” The only prominent politician I’ve been able to find who did not, knee-jerkedly, call for Franken to resign, was South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who, during the 2020 presidential primary season,  was widely criticized on social media for saying that he would not have pressured Franken to resign without first learning more about the alleged incidents.

Although both Franken and Tweeden called for an independent investigation into her charges, none took place. This reticence reflected the 2017 cultural moment when women’s accusations of sexual discrimination and harassment were finally being taken seriously, after years of belittlement and dismissal. Al Franken and the #MeToo movement collided with disastrous results for Franken.

But Menendez is different. He’s been in Congress for 30 years, a Senator for the last 18. He knows where a lot of bodies are buried. And it is apparently important that the charges against him are what you might call “economic,” rather than sexual. Thus far, his influential colleagues don’t think he has touched the political third rail. They’re wrong, though.

I wonder how long will it take his friends in the Senate, having stuck their wet fingers up in the air, to realize that rank and file Americans have had enough, and that it is time for Bob Menendez to go the way of Al Franken.

If not, it is interesting to contemplate the thought of both Bob Menendez and Donald Trump being tried in the Southern District Court of New York at the same time while running for two of America’s highest offices.

We live in strange times.

The High Plains Grifter Free To Grift Again

Thursday, September 21st, 2023

Over the weekend, the Texas State Senate voted to acquit Ken Paxton, the state’s Attorney General, of every one of the 16 bribery, unfitness for office, and abuse of office impeachment charges brought by the Texas House of Representatives in May. Paxton, who has been suspended from office since the charges were brought, was immediately reinstated.

Paxton, who fancies himself an “evangelical conservative Christian,” has long aligned himself with the most conservative, hard-line forces in the GOP – and many of those forces have backed him. Trump has supported him, lambasting the Republicans who impeached him as “RINOS,” or Republicans in name only, and calling his impeachment “election interference.”

This entire affair (which, as I’ll describe in a moment, is an excellent word to use in this case) has not covered either Paxton or his numerous Texas allies with glory. Rather, they are left dripping with what one might see dropping from myriad cattle roaming the Texas Plains. They don’t care. They won.

So, what was it all about?

There has been a cloud of scandal hovering over Attorney General Paxton for years. The ever-darkening cloud includes an in-plain-sight extramarital affair and involvement with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s campaign and paid to renovate his home in return for favorable treatment by Paxton’s office.  Despite the scandal, and an indictment in state court for securities fraud dating back to 2015 (he has repeatedly succeeded in delaying his trial), he won re-election to a third term last year, largely by closely aligning himself with Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters.

In 2020, four high-ranking attorneys in Paxton’s office became whistleblowers by accusing Paxton of gross corruption. The aides — Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley, James Blake Brickman and David Maxwell — were all  Deputy Attorneys General, and Maxwell was Director of the office’s Law Enforcement Division. They told investigators that the Texas AG may have committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office. When Paxton found out about this, he fired the four of them. When that happened, they sued him.

Between 2020 and 2023, Paxton and his former aides worked out a settlement—for an apology from him and $3.3 million for them.

Then things began to get even more weird than they already were, because in early May of this year Paxton petitioned the Texas Legislature, i.e. Texas taxpayers, to pay the settlement for him, letting him off the hook. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, no friend of Paxton, said that he did not believe there were the votes in the House needed to approve the payment; he also said that he did not himself support doing so. If the state paid the aides the $3.3 million settlement it would be like giving Paxton a very expensive Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Instead of doing that, the House Committee on General Investigating accelerated its investigation and subpoenaed records from his office.

During the Committee’s investigation an ugly piece of evidence emerged from the muck when it was learned that, in addition to donating to his campaign and paying to renovate his home, Texas real estate tycoon Nate Paul also gave Paxton’s mistress a job in his Houston office, which allowed Paxton a little adulterous convenience. What became immediately inconvenient was the fact that Paxton’s wife, Angela, is a Texas State Senator, and the Texas Senate would be the jurors for Paxton’s impeachment trial. The poor lady was prohibited from participating in the trial, but had to sit there listening to all the sordid details—for ten days. Senator Paxton was a secondary math teacher and school counselor for more than 20 years, and is the first educator elected to the Texas Senate in over two decades.

Required to attend, she listened stone-faced during the trial as multiple witnesses testified about her husband’s infidelity, exposing as a lie his 2018 declaration to her and senior aides that the affair was permanently over.

Senator Paxton’s not saying how she would have voted had she been allowed to do so.

The Texas Senate is comprised of 12 Democrats and 19 Republicans (given Senator Paxton’s situation, only 18 could vote). Twenty-one votes were required for a conviction. On all 16 charges, the votes were 14 for conviction, 16 for acquittal. Only two of 19 Republican Senators, Bob Nichols of Jacksonville and Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, voted in favor of convicting for any article — a stark contrast to the more than 70% of House Republicans who impeached the attorney general in May. Just goes to show the ideological differences between the Texas House and Senate. After his acquittal, Paxton’s MAGA supporters immediately promised full-throated primary attacks on the two who betrayed the cause. They’re probably toast.

You may be asking, “What about that $3.3 million settlement?” The Texas Office of the Attorney General said it’s unlikely Paxton will have to pay the settlement out of his own pocket. What did you expect?

Following his acquittal. Paxton was defiant. In a statement after the verdict, he blamed his impeachment on the Biden administration and “liberal” Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, promising to attack Biden’s “lawless policies.” He railed about the Biden White House weaponizing the justice department, which, according to him will not be allowed to happen in his Texas. Apparently, a lot of Texans agree with him. In the days following his exoneration his campaign raised $1.7 million.

Paxton still has obvious political liabilities. The securities fraud case mentioned above and a federal investigation into alleged corruption remain very much live wires. And the State Bar of Texas is seeking to sanction Paxton over his 2020 election stunt of filing frivolous lawsuits in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin challenging the results that put Joe Biden in the White House. Paxton calls the investigation “a ploy by ‘leftists’ in the state bar association.” It’s conceivable he could be disbarred—barely.

Paxton’s defense relied heavily on his attorneys declaring that his various actions were not criminal, which even if true is of limited relevance, impeachment not being a criminal proceeding. As State Representative Andrew Murr, the House’s impeachment manager, said in his opening statement, “We require more from our public officials than merely to avoid being a criminal.”

Really? Well, maybe in some places.

Regardless, Ken Paxton is acquitted and back at his desk with more power than he had prior to l’affaire Paxton.


What Are Republican Candidates For President Saying About Crime, And Is Any Of It True?

Monday, September 18th, 2023

We Americans have come to live in a perpetual election cycle, and, although the next big election (these days they’re all big ones) is still 14 months away, you’d think it was tomorrow given the hair-on-fire catastrophizing spewing from the myriad Republican presidential candidates.

The candidates seem to have landed on four issues to hyperbolize: migrants coming across the southern border, the continuously rising crime rate (which, devoid of evidence, Republicans say the migrant “invasion” exacerbates¹), inflation, and, lately, Joe Biden’s old age decrepitude.

Folks, from here to November 2024, ad nauseam, we are going to hear about the horrors implicit in each of those  horrendomas, particularly so if one happens to live in or near one of the seven “battleground” states that, according to all the pundits, will decide who wins: Arizona and Nevada in the west, Georgia and North Carolina in the southeast and Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the northern industrial belt.

And I’m not kidding about ad nauseam. According to the political advertising intelligence company AdImpact, as reported by David Lauter of the LA Times, on-air advertising for this presidential cycle will top $10.2 billion. That’s up 13% over 2022’s midterm election spend. Contrast this to the 2012 election cycle when President Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney each managed to break through the $1 billion mark. How quaint eleven years ago seems.

Seldom have so many spent so much to persuade so few.

Regarding those four hot topic issues, the alleged migrant “invasion,” inflation, Biden’s age, and exploding crime, let’s focus on violent crime for a moment.

Much of the more than $10 billion projected to be spent during this election cycle will be spent to convince Americans we are in the midst of an explosion in crime, and if you don’t elect the right person (take your pick), it will be coming to a doorstep near you in the blink of an eye.

How true is that?

Actually, not very.

Criminology academics have long known that for nearly 25 years Americans’ perception of crime has been far greater than the reality of crime, which in the Department of Justice is known as the “violent victimization rate.” It was in the presidential race of 2000, pitting George W. Bush against Al Gore, that political operatives discovered the carrying power of scaring people by exaggerating about violent crime, which is, and has been, steadily declining for 30 years. As the Department of Justice reported in 2022, “the last 3 decades saw an overall decline in the violent victimization rate from 79.8 to 23.5 per 1,000 from 1993 to 2022.”

But you’d never know that from listening to the Republican candidates for President, all of whom have made curbing violent crime—getting tough on criminals, as they put it—a central issue of their campaigns.

Americans also believe crime in the rest of the country is much worse than in their neighborhoods.

The crime issue has become overwhelmingly partisan. No matter who occupies the Oval Office since 2000, the opposition is screaming about crime, as this chart from Gallup shows. Notice the huge spike after Joe Biden’s election.

And nearly three quarters of Republicans, as well as about a third of Democrats, say migrants make things worse in the areas of crime and the nation’s economy (see Note 1).

These opinions contradict facts, which show an upsurge in violent crime has not happened and the country’s economy has markedly improved during the Biden presidency. For example, the U.S. has added more than 13 million jobs—including nearly 800,000 manufacturing jobs—and unleashed a manufacturing and clean energy boom. Moreover, there were more than 10 million applications for new small businesses filed in 2021 and 2022—the strongest two years on record.

Nonetheless, if one looks objectively at the political scene in this election cycle, removing partisanship as much as possible, there are a few areas of justifiable great concern.

First, the clamor about Joe Biden’s age is not going away. This is a high hill for Biden to climb, because it is not a reflection of his current job performance, but rather a fear that if he wins and takes the oath of office as an 82 year old man, he will not be able to finish his second term, because of death or steep decline in cognitive function. Research has shown that Americans want assurance that the trust they place in candidates by voting for them will be validated by the candidates they elect, at the very least, serving out their terms competently.

Second, immigration, a tremendously complicated issue, will continue to bedevil and bewilder the nation regardless of who is leading it.

Third, the affordability of health care, which, with the exception of criticizing Medicare’s new-found ability to negotiate drug prices, thereby lowering costs to seniors, none of the candidates wants to talk about. This, despite 64% of Americans considering health care costs a “very big problem,” according to the Pew Research Center. Yet, reining in our highest-in-the-world health care costs seems an almost insurmountable challenge, given the well-entrenched special interests that have driven costs to more than twice the OECD average.

Fourth, another thing the Republican candidates avoid is any discussion about the winnowing out of the middle class. As Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill, of the Brookings Institution, wrote in 2020, middle class income has grown much slower than either the highest or lowest quintiles in the nation since 1979, resulting in the middle class shrinking from 61% of households to 50% today. They posit the principal reason for this is because the middle class lacks “economic power.” They write, “Importantly, the modest income growth of middle-class families is almost entirely due to the rise of working hours and especially the wages of women.” The unfortunate result of all this middle class economic stagnation is that, for the middle class, as the economist Jared Bernstein so memorably put it, “economic growth has become a spectator sport.”

Fifth, there are our thermonuclear culture wars. Since the birth of the Freedom Caucus, nothing exemplifies the toxicity of our public discourse more than citizens showing up at Library Trustee Meetings to harangue their volunteer neighbors about the books on the shelves.

You will not hear these, or other critically important issues, debated by the Republican candidates for President. Why? Because they’re complicated and cannot be reduced to sound bites.

But sound bites are what we’ll all get—ad nauseam.


¹ According to a study by the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh, Andrew C. Forrester, and Michelangelo Landgrave, native born Americans commit about twice the rate of crime as both legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants. If you doubt that, read the study.



The Mississippi Delta: A Third World Country In The Heart Of America

Friday, September 8th, 2023

In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published its long-awaited report, Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination Volume VII: The Mississippi Delta Report. This groundbreaking report was the product of four years of investigation and, for a moment, shocked the nation. It described abject poverty throughout the region.

Yesterday, 22 years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data on unemployment in U.S. counties from 2002 to 2022. The BLS report focused on the Mississippi Delta, the same area studied by the Civil Rights Commission. Although employment in the nation grew by 17.8% during the period, employment in the Delta dropped 0.6%, the result being that the Mississippi Delta is now, and has been since 2001, the poorest region in America. Why is this?

First, some background.

The Lower Mississippi Delta region is an enormous area encompassing portions of seven states: Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. It begins in southern Illinois and ends at the southeastern tip of Louisiana. The Delta is composed of 219 counties and is home to 8.3 million people, the majority of whom are black, and their current socioeconomic condition, which has been the subject of numerous studies, can generally be characterized charitably as one of limited economic resources, inadequate employment opportunities, insufficient affordable housing, and poor quality public schools.

The region’s unique history of slavery carries with it debilitating legacies: the sharecropping system, Jim Crow laws, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a minority white population, the political disenfranchisement of blacks, and the nearly total social segregation of the races. All of this has been well documented and is generally viewed as the most significant factor in the region’s present position as the poorest section of the nation based on virtually every socioeconomic measurement.

The Delta, which when the Civil Rights Commission was studying the area was known as a “Third World Country in the heart of America,”¹ was an agricultural powerhouse in the 19th century that was left behind by the industrial revolution. For all the reasons listed above, the unemployment and poverty we know today followed.

The preponderance of poverty lies in four states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama, and the poverty rates in these four Delta states are about the same or have gotten worse since the Civil Rights Commission’s report.

Notwithstanding these statewide numbers, the poverty rate in most Delta counties is 30 to 40 percent. The predominant demographic is the Black population.

Let’s focus on Mississippi. The percentage of Black families with incomes below the poverty level ranges from 46.4% in Washington County to 68% in Tunica County. In stark contrast, the poverty rates for white families in the same area range from Holmes County’s 7.2% to Tallahatchie County’s 14.9%.

This is an ongoing tragedy, and the reasons for it are legion. However, political ideology is a big one. Historically, governmental administrations in the four cited states have been firm in their resolve to go it alone, rather than asking for and accepting federal assistance. You can still hear echoes of the state’s rights arguments of the civil war period.

Mississippi’s governor is Republican Tate Reeves, who has refused expansion of Medicaid, along with a number of other federal programs. His predecessor, Republican Phil Bryant,  offered incentives to attract two tire manufacturing plants — one is open, the other being built. Neither is in the Delta.

But, while the Delta region continues to labor, the overall Mississippi economy seems to be in a slight rebound for three primary reasons, one of them offering some benefit to the people in the Delta:

First, there is the growth of the Dockside Casino industry, the entirety of which is in the Delta. In 1990, the state passed a law allowing dockside casinos along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. Today, there are 38 casinos in Mississippi, employing nearly 33,000 people. Most of the casinos are in impoverished Tunica County. The trouble is, while casinos have brought employment to many, other industries, such as manufacturing, have reduced employment.

Second, Mississippi’s agricultural industry is once again booming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state now ranks in the upper tier of the nation for agriculture with producers raising and and selling $6.2 billion in crops and livestock in 2019. In 2021, the Tyson company invested $61 million to expand its operations in the Magnolia state.

Third, there is the significant economic impact generated by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of November, 2021. The Jobs Act was bipartisan, with 19 Republican senators voting for it, including one of Mississippi’s—Roger Wicker. The Act will bring $4.6 billion to the state. Because of this, construction jobs in the state are on a dramatic rise. Mississippi’s other Senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith, voted against the bill, because of its cost. She said it was “a bridge too far.” Frankly, as a Senator from the poorest state in the nation, perhaps Hyde-Smith should take whatever she’s offered and say, “Thank you.”

Mississippi, especially its Delta region, has a long way to go, and I’m sure its citizens are sick and tired of being the nation’s economic bottom-of-the-birdcage. Yet, in some pockets, things are improving thanks to some calm and rational people. We need more of them.

In particular, we need a collective and constructive approach to helping all the rural southern areas in the Delta. One positive step Mississippi could take would be to expand Medicaid, which would provide significant aid to 200,000 Mississippians who don’t have health insurance, because they can’t afford it, 70% of whom live in the Mississippi Delta.


¹ Michael Parfit, And What Words Shall Describe the Mississippi, Great Father of Rivers, Smithsonian, February 1993, p. 36.


Senator Tommy Tuberville Is Weakening Our Military Preparedness And Violating His Constitutional Oath

Wednesday, September 6th, 2023

In 2018,  Congress passed, and President Trump signed into law, the VA Mission Act, a bipartisan effort to expand medical care for veterans proposed by Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). The Mission Act greatly increased the availability of Community Care, which had been part of VA care since 1914 and which allowed veterans to access needed care from the private sector when care at VA facilities was overly inconvenient and a hardship because of distance.  For example, here in the Berkshires, the Community Care  provisions of the Mission Act allowed me to have my shoulder replaced a few months ago — that’s what hitting  nearly a million tennis overheads will do for you!

The Mission Act shows how the Department of Veterans Affairs strives to care for people who have given a part of their lives to the defense of the country. It is a medical, as well as a highly successful public relations program, in that the country sees a nation caring for its own, which translates to an incentive for attracting soldiers for future needs. In an obvious calculation, the country has decided that caring for its veterans is in its national self-interest.

This includes reproductive care.

When the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision throwing abortion up in the air for states to handle like a game of pick-up sticks, the Department of Defense faced a quandary. Reproductive care had long been recognized as essential and, because of Roe v. Wade had never been a problem. The DOD did not pay for abortions in compliance with the Hyde Amendment of 1976, but it allowed soldiers to take time off for the procedure. Dobbs changed that. Soldiers get sent all over the world and all over America. How was the DOD to guarantee reproductive care if many states decided to make it virtually impossible?

The only viable answer became to allow soldiers to take paid time off and travel at government expense to where reproductive care and abortions were legal.

To that end, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a new policy last October that he said would ensure all troops have access to reproductive health care no matter where they were.

In a memo, Austin said service members and their families were worried they may not get equal access to health care, including abortions after the Dobbs decision. And as many states began to impose more abortion restrictions, he noted that service members who often must move for various missions or training would be forced to travel further, take more time off  and pay more to access reproductive health care.

The problem, Austin said, would create extraordinary hardship and “will interfere with our ability to recruit, retain, and maintain the readiness of a highly qualified force.”

He ordered the department to allow troops and dependents, consistent with federal law, to take time off and use official travel to get to other states for reproductive care not available locally. That care includes in vitro fertilization and other pregnancy aids that also may not be accessible close by. As before, abortions would be paid for by the soldiers themselves in compliance with the Hyde Amendment.

Enter Alabama’s senior Senator Tommy Tuberville, who does not like what Secretary Austin and the DOD did even a little bit. Senator Tuberville, a former college football coach, is a man who has never served one day in the armed forces, who has never heard the special sound a bullet makes as it whizzes past your ear, and who has never experienced the family hardships soldiers face as they move from post to post around the country and the world. Military families move, on average, every 2.5 years, every move bringing change and the need to start anew for each member of the family. Military life has pros and cons, but among the downsides is the angst from having to negotiate these restarts. Children make friends in one school, then need to do it all over again and again.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you military life can be stressful, and the Department of Defense goes to great lengths to offer as much assistance as families need. That includes reproductive care.

Doesn’t seem to matter to old gridiron Tommy Tuberville. He seems to believe that allowing soldiers to get paid for travel to quality reproductive care is a military mistake akin to Napoleon invading Russia. And he’s done something about it. Deciding that military continuity of leadership is not necessary in today’s fast paced, modern military, beginning in March of this year he began single-handedly prohibiting promotions for senior military and civilian leadership. One Senator, out of a hundred, can do this. Nobody ever has until now. So far, he has blocked promotions for 301 senior field grade officers, generals and admirals whom the Department of Defense would like to promote to mostly replace retiring DOD senior officers. These include three members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and will shortly include Chairman Mark Milley, who is set to retire at the end of September.  If Tuberville’s intransigence continues we will find ourselves without a Chair of the Joint Chiefs. Already, Tuberville has left the Marine Corps leaderless for the first time in 164 years. DOD would like to promote Lieutenant General Eric Smith to the four-star level to replace Corps Commandant General David Berger who retired in July, but can’t, because of Tuberville.

So General Smith is in an “interim” role. This is not a minor thing. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe, Smith said, for now he must “ruthlessly adhere” to admonitions from the Senate that he not presume his next assignment is assured.

“People say, ‘What’s your commandant’s planning guidance?’” Smith said, referring to a major document that the Marine Corps leader typically distributes at the outset of his term, to set priorities and expectations for the 200,000 active-duty troops and reservists under his command. The general’s reply: “You’ll have to ask the 39th commandant when that person is confirmed,” he said, “because I cannot work on that document.”

With hundreds of promotions at stake, Senate leaders would have to hold roll call votes on every single one of them to get around the hold. It’s a decades-long tradition for the Senate to group military promotions together and approve them by voice vote, avoiding lengthy roll calls, but doing them individually would tie the Senate in knots for weeks. Again, doesn’t matter to “Coach,” as his staff refers to Tuberville.

The Pentagon and lawmakers opposed to Tuberville’s actions, Democrats and Republicans alike, say the holds create a trickle-down effect that is hurting military readiness, preventing scores of officers from moving to new jobs, either as nominees or staff members. They argue that less experienced leaders are being forced to step in.

For his part, Tuberville says this whole thing can go away if the DOD reverses its decision to give time off and pay for travel for abortions. Until that happens — which it won’t — he will continue to prevent the orderly transfer of leadership, pretty much as he tried to do on January 6th, 2021, when he voted not to certify Joe Biden’s election.

Secretary Austin runs the largest and most sophisticated military in the history of the world, and this is not making his job any easier. It is a national embarrassment. More important, it is jeopardizing our national security.

I first wrote about Senator Tuberville and his current antics in July. And, frankly, I thought by now he would quit this “hold” nonsense, say he had made his point, fold his tent, and leave the field. But no. That would have been too easy. Instead, since then, he has dug the hole deeper. By weakening our armed forces as he is doing, he is violating his Constitutional oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” 

I’ve always believed we get the leaders we deserve, and maybe Alabama deserves Tommy Tuberville. But the rest of us don’t, and, for sure, the valiant men and women of our armed forces don’t.

Will The Inexorable Movement Of A Changing Climate Finally Force Us To Change With It?

Friday, September 1st, 2023

Climate change is all around us, creeping in from every side, making itself known more and more in ever more problematic ways. This has been happening since the dawn of time; it’s ecologically normal. What’s not ecologically normal is our helping it along.

I thought about this a couple of nights ago as I stood at the glass doors overlooking the gorgeous forest that borders our land here in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. I was watching raindrops fall, just a few drops snaking through the lights on the deck. Falling so thinly, they seemed furtive, like the recon scout I once was, checking out the landscape for the armies to follow. Then, they slackened and died away. A minute later, they were back with billions of their buddies in tow to pound the roof and deck below.

That’s what it’s been like here this summer, the wettest on record. Is it just a blip in history, or something more, a portent of the future?

Climate has been changing repeatedly, over and over, since earth was first formed four and a half billion years ago. Humanity first blossomed in Africa about two million years ago (we are all Africans), Homo Sapiens two to three hundred thousand years ago, and for most of the time we’ve been here we have not seen climate change coming. Like my furtive raindrops, it snuck in when no one was looking and changed everything. But now, advances in science allow us to understand what’s happening, what’s happened before, and what’s just now coming over the horizon. And whatever’s coming, it seems to be gathering momentum. The question being debated is how much are we contributing to the process and, if we are, how can we slow it down?

Looking at the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is instructive, and historian Kyle Harper’s magnificent, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease & the End of an Empire¹, particularly so. Why? Because climate change played a significant role in the slowly disappearing Roman Empire.

We are now in the Holocene geological epoch. It began about 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age. The Holocene has seen a warmer climate, yet one that wobbles between warmer and cooler. As Harper points out, the apex of the Roman Empire, the Roman Climate Optimum (RCO), was one of the most geologically and agriculturally fruitful periods in the entire Holocene. The perfect weather of the RCO, which lasted from around 150 BCE to 200 CE, allowed Rome to provide all the food its citizens would need to grow and prosper. The height of Romans increased, as did their life expectancy. With Egypt as its breadbasket, Rome was able to conquer the entire known western world and reign supreme for more than 500 years. But climate changed and three plagues arrived, and the hegemony elevator began to take everyone back down. At the end of the seventh century, the Roman Empire was a long gone thing.

The year 536 was a pivotal year. Two major volcanic eruptions blotted out the sky, and the year came to be known as “the year without summer,” which began the coldest decade in the last two thousand years and a more prolonged cold snap lasting 125 years. By this time, earth’s warming had stopped, rain happened less often, and the planet entered the Late Antique Little Ice Age, which was accompanied, unfortunately for the Empire, by two decimating plagues. There had been an earlier one, the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180, but under Marcus Aurelius the Empire bounced back from that to be stronger than ever.

When the apocalyptic Plague of Justinian struck in 541, Rome was a tired nation. The plague was a devastating pandemic, and we now know it to have been Europe’s first bubonic plague. The emperor Justinian was one of the ablest emperors Rome ever had, but he was faced with an  insurmountable confluence of bad news: a decline in solar output, as well as spreading aridification in North Africa and frequent flooding in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The Egyptian breadbasket was a thing of the past. But Justinian tried, and tried mightily, embarking on a series of environmental engineering projects, building cisterns and aqueducts, moving riverbeds and reclaiming floodplains, all in an effort to safeguard his civilization. He failed.

Harper estimates the mortality rate of the Justinianic Plague at around 50 percent, and notes that bubonic plague continued to attack the empire for two more centuries after 541, riding on the backs of the empire’s rats and recurring in humans whenever environmental conditions conspired: some 38 times over the next 200 years. The halving of the population in 541, followed by these periodic aftershocks, sent every sphere of public life into disarray, notably decimating the army and wreaking economic chaos. Harper writes, “There is a relatively uncomplicated line from demographic collapse to the failure of the eastern empire.”

We do not face bubonic plague, but we have the ever-mutating Coronavirus staring us in the face, and what it will do in the future is anyone’s guess. Just yesterday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 2,179 new cases in the Commonwealth, with 359 hospitalizations and 12 deaths.

And, as has been demonstrated vividly in recent times, the climate times are changing. Wildfires, floods, warmer seas breeding bigger storms, ungodly heat in places that never experienced it before write our story now. The hottest years since records have been kept are happening now, right now, and the best minds studying this predict more is coming. Rising seas will put our coastal cities in danger whether we like it or not.

The degree to which mankind is contributing to this disaster-in-the-making is immaterial, because the fact is, it is happening. We should stop arguing, agree about the problem and then, like Justinian, do what we can for the good of humanity. We have a lot more weapons than he did.

We can never address this successfully if every country is doing its own thing and if governments are not empowered to generate collective action. What we need is a collaborative human endeavor, one in which humanity as a whole works together with common purpose and sacrifice. And there really isn’t time to waste.

The fate of Rome does not have to be our fate. But I can’t say I’m optimistic.



¹ Harper, Kyle, 2017, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease & the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press.